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This Champions League Round Has Not Been Kind To Barcelona

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): After 24 goals, one transcendent Kylian Mbappé performance and a lot of yuks from the CBS Sports studio show, the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 is complete. And there is a lot to discuss! Grace, Tony, Ryan, I think we have to start with Barcelona and their 4-1 defeat at home to PSG. What went so wrong??

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): Barcelona didn’t have Mbappé.

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tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I think you said it in your intro, Chad. Even though there were a few other things that went wrong for Barça in that game, a transcendent Mbappé performance was the crucial difference. We knew defense was going to be a problem for Barcelona, but not this bad. Barcelona was slow and static and had no answers for PSG’s fullbacks. I thought Alessandro Florenzi, in particular, had a great game for PSG.


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ryan: Per Stats Perform, Mbappé took six shots worth 1.84 expected goals (xG). That’s more than any team other than Bayern Munich through the first legs.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): Thing is, if this were to be about raw superstars, Neymar’s injury should have been an equalizer. Just Lionel Messi vs Mbappé. And PSG still completely crushed it.

cwick: Barcelona had a 70 percent chance of advancing to the next round, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, and it didn’t even know about Neymar! (It doesn’t account for injuries.) Now, Barcelona has a 6 percent chance of advancing.

ryan: Barcelona just doesn’t really seem like a modern team to me. It’s so un-dynamic; everything goes through Messi, and it’s all very measured and slow. It was striking to see that against perhaps the most dynamic player in the world on the other side.

grace: We never really see it domestically, but PSG has gradually done a really nice job of beefing up its side for these tough knockout contests. It’s got a really solid balance there with Idrissa Gueye, Leandro Paredes and Marco Verratti. It’s hard work playing through that, especially when Barça just wants to give it to Messi.

ryan: PSG played Verratti as something of a 10, which is theoretically a defensive selection, but then he went out and played the brilliant ball to Mbappé to set up its opener. There ended up not being much of a trade-off.

tchow: To be fair to Barcelona, I thought there were a few moments where it seemed like things were clicking, at least offensively. Frenkie De Jong had a couple good runs high up when Messi was getting the ball deep in midfield. The team needs more of that type of interchange.

ryan: As Chad pointed out, Barcelona has some really nice underlying numbers, but it might just be that La Liga’s not that good.

grace: It’s felt like the story of Barça all year has been that it’s not too bad (best in La Liga on xG difference!), but you can’t really see the greatness of the team beyond just having a bunch of good players.

cwick: Humor me for a second: How is it not enough to just have a bunch of good players?

grace: The studies we have show that it’s enough the vast majority of the time, and managers don’t matter much, at least in the domestic league format. But when you’re playing in a two-legged knockout stage where the talent gap is much smaller, managers’ choices and tactical cohesion matter a lot more, I would argue.

ryan: PSG scored from settled possession, counters and set pieces. Barça really only seemed like it had one way through: Messi playing someone in. I think you need more gears to succeed in the knockouts.

tchow: To prep for the second leg, I think Barcelona’s coaching staff should watch tape from PSG’s Ligue 1 loss to Monaco over this past weekend for some clues. PSG went out with almost an identical starting 11 to their Barcelona game (Ander Herrera started against Monaco instead of Verratti) and yet Monaco was able to keep Mbappé in control and win 2-0. Mbappé registered zero shots and completed just 62 percent of his passes that game. That’s a good model for Barcelona.

ryan: I think most of Barcelona’s pregame prep should be spent in some kind of place of worship.

cwick: Tony, I know just enough about your life to wonder how in the world you’re finding time to watch PSG vs. Monaco on a Sunday afternoon.

ryan: Monaco is one of his 18 favorite teams.

tchow: It was the Mbappé-bowl! Can’t miss television.

grace: I remember we spoke last season about Barça lacking a threat running in behind. The team has tweaked things a bit, but now it sometimes seems like the other problem: it lacks a clear structure in possession.

cwick: Am I wrong to think that this is a coaching issue, then? The players are good, but tactics need to be better.

grace: Yes, though it perhaps goes higher than that. Quique Setién was a bright coach for Barcelona with good tactical ideas, but he couldn’t get through to the players. Ronald Koeman is better at that side of it, but lacks the tactics.

cwick: I don’t want to neglect the PSG side of that match. The team went from a 2 percent chance of winning the tournament to 6 percent, largely based on its likelihood of clearing this round. (Its SPI has only increased 0.6 points.) Is our model undervaluing PSG, given Mbappé’s transcendence?

grace: I think the model has correctly punished PSG for a poor first half to the season, but I’m not convinced that matters now with a different coach. I would say it’s the model’s most underrated compared to how likely I think the team is to win it.

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tchow: According to SPI, PSG is the seventh-best team among those remaining. I think you could find a lot of people (and not just PSG fans) who would argue it’s actually a better side at the moment then Chelsea, Real Madrid or Liverpool. So yea, I think the model is undervaluing it.

ryan: Seems like it might be hard to properly value PSG given how few games it has played against teams that are highly rated by the model. I also think there might be a bit of the reverse of what I said about La Liga going on in Ligue 1. Ligue 1 seems like it might be pretty good this year, so maybe PSG not being able to take the league — it’s in third place right now — is more about that than the team’s own failings. I mean, it just smoked the second-best team in the model on the road without Neymar and Ángel Di María. That’s legit!

cwick: PSG is the Boise State of international soccer, as I suspected.

ryan: Wake me up when they paint the Parc des Prince turf blue.

grace: Nothing says elegance and class in Paris like that.


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cwick: OK, let’s move on to some of those other teams. Chelsea and Real Madrid both won their away matches 1-0, have similar chances of making the next round (a little higher than 80 percent) but emerge with different narratives. Chelsea hung a clean sheet and finally broke through on a tough Atlético Madrid side, while Real Madrid had trouble scoring against 10 Atalanta men. Are these teams really in similar positions going forward?

grace: The baseline probably isn’t too different (identical SPI), but I think the upside is much higher for Chelsea with new manager Thomas Tuchel.

tchow: LOL ummmmm … no. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong about Chelsea. I thought it had very little chance in this two-leg matchup, but it got the crucial away goal and played a great game against Atlético Madrid. But it was a very uncharacteristic Atlético Madrid game and I don’t think Chelsea is going to have a repeat performance like that.

ryan: I feel a lot better about Chelsea going forward. This was the exact game that should’ve tripped it up — against Diego Simeone, playing SIX DEFENDERS — and Chelsea deservedly won, imo.

grace: I wouldn’t say I feel a lot better about Chelsea, but both sides need to improve to win the Champions League, and it’s easier to imagine a world where Chelsea slowly become more accustomed to what Tuchel wants than a world where Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane suddenly finds a new gear.

tchow: Whoa, so am I the only one who feels a lot better about Real Madrid going forward? Atlético had six shots but zero shots on target against Chelsea, only the second time the team had zero shots on target in a game this season in all competitions. Plus for Chelsea, both Mason Mount and Jorginho will be missing the second leg due to yellow cards. Both of them were crucial in the midfield for Chelsea in this first leg, Jorginho especially.

cwick: lol Tony, are you arguing in favor of Real despite this tweet?

tchow: I just think Chelsea is going to really regret not scoring more goals in this first game, which it should have.

ryan: Chelsea totally controlled the game against the team that’s in first place in La Liga, ahead of Real Madrid, which just struggled to score despite playing a man up for the majority of the match against one of the worst defensive teams in the tournament.

ryan: I just can’t really get upset at a team for winning 1-0, with an away goal, against a Simeone side.

grace: A lot of it was about Simeone being overly cautious, but this nonetheless makes me rethink my expectations with Chelsea. It was just clearly the better side.

ryan: Totally agree. It was kind of shocking to me, especially given Atléti’s place in the La Liga table.

tchow: I mean, Real Madrid played a terrible game and should not have had this much trouble against a 10-man Atalanta side. I’ll admit I was half watching the game and half watching my kid, but it seemed like everytime I looked up at the TV, Isco or even Luka Modrić was making a run into the box, but Toni Kroos and Casemiro just couldn’t find them. A very worrying and boring performance from Real Madrid.

ryan: But in case I haven’t made my theory clear yet: La Liga just isn’t very good this year!

grace: I say this every time, but I’m just bored of Real Madrid. There are no new and interesting ideas there. Just the same core getting gradually worse each year.

tchow: But even that should be enough to get past this Atalanta side! Which is why I’m not too worried for Real Madrid as compared to Chelsea. It’s more about who the opponent is, in my opinion.

ryan: I have a hard time seeing Madrid winning the whole thing, barring more hijinks like what we just saw: red cards, Ferland Mendy right-footers, etc. I can picture a world where Chelsea goes the distance.

grace: Similar to Barcelona, having better players is enough most weeks in La Liga, but as soon as Real Madrid comes up against a similarly talented side with better tactical cohesion (see: Man City last season), I can’t see the team coming through.

cwick: Let’s talk about one other powerhouse that disappointed, Juventus, and the team that beat it. In the last chat, Grace said, “Porto isn’t very good this year.” Grace, did the win against Juventus change your mind?

grace: Not really? It suggested that maybe this Juventus side is more prone to messing up, but I wasn’t wowed by Porto.

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ryan: Soccer is a lot easier when you score with your first shot of the first AND second halves.

grace: I would imagine a lot of their 1.3 xG against Juve (by FiveThirtyEight’s shot-based calculation) came from Juventus’s horrible goalkeeping error right at the start. Otherwise, I didn’t see anything to change my mind about Porto. Everyone can screenshot this when the team takes the trophy back to Northern Portugal.

tchow: I thought Porto pressed Juventus pretty well, really packed it in after that early goal and was pretty solid defensively (for the most part). But I think that one away goal it gave up to Juventus is gonna haunt it in the next leg.

grace: The model still has Juve at 60 percent to go through and that feels right to me. If Porto does pull this off, the story will be about Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo and his side’s deficiencies.

ryan: Porto defended real well, but the non-shot xG for the game — 2.1 to 0.5 in favor of Juve — suggests that the visitors had a ton of dangerous possession that didn’t become shots. The most surprising thing: Cristiano Ronaldo took one shot.

grace: CR7, ever the patriot.

tchow: Yeah I’d agree. If — and it’s a big if — Porto makes this happen, there will be a lot of questions about Pirlo’s tactics. Playing out from the back is all the rage nowadays, but Juventus kinda reminded you what can happen when your side is not used to doing that.

But all Juventus has to do is win 1-0 at home to advance. That’s extremely doable.

ryan: Yeah, I think it’s more about what the result says about Juve’s title chances. This result and performance definitely downgraded Juventus in my book.

cwick: Finally, I suppose we have to talk about Liverpool. 2-0 victors against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, losers of seemingly everything else in England. As Liverpool freefalls in the EPL, its chances of winning the Champions League have risen, up to 9 percent. What is happening with this team??

tchow: It just knows how to focus on what really matters, you know?

ryan: I know someone with a newsletter who recently wrote about this …

grace: Liverpool is still functionally the same team as last season minus some key injuries, but all the variance that broke in its favor last year has taken a hard turn against this year. The RB Leipzig result was a real “this is still Liverpool” kind of game. Then, the Everton game was more of what we’ve been seeing in recent months.

tchow: I’m completely serious, though. With its Champions League qualification in jeopardy through the EPL, Liverpool kinda needs to do well (i.e., win the whole thing) in the Champions League for next season. A lot of money is on the line here if it fails to qualify.

ryan: But Liverpool’s odds of finishing top four in the EPL, per the model, are nearly six times as high as they are for winning the Champions League. That said, I could see an argument that Liverpool is better suited to play against teams like Leipzig, which won’t sit back in a shell. But overall, the team is the same; the bounces are just bouncing the wrong direction back home.

grace: Liverpool is at 53 percent to finish top four in the Premier League, so it’s clear that race needs to be taken seriously. But nonetheless, this team is fine minus injuries and variance.

cwick: As a Liverpool fan, I understand your argument intellectually … but then I watch Ozan Kabak be overmatched and Henderson go down and Sadio Mané fail to score and the midfield look uncreative, and I think, “How does this team get out of this mess?”

grace: The numbers cannot account for emotional trauma.

grace: But my baseline assumption remains: Liverpool has a real shot at winning the Champions League, regardless of recent form.

tchow: Liverpool will be fine. Even if it doesn’t win Champions League this season or — gasp — it doesn’t finish in the top four in the EPL, Liverpool fans can still bask in the glow of recent past wins for a while. And in any case, there’s nothing like a visit to last-place-in-the-EPL Sheffield United to right Liverpool’s EPL campaign. The road back starts now.

grace: The 21st century for Liverpool has been a constant cycle of building an excellent side, then immediately collapsing to require a years-long rebuild. This is the first time it got a Premier League title win before it fell apart.

ryan: I really don’t think you can watch this team and say “wow, they suck” — unless you ignore 95 percent of what happens in every match. The decisive moments are just all going against it — penalties, finishing, etc. — but it lives in the other team’s penalty area every match at this point. Liverpool just beat the second-place team in Germany by a comfortable two-goal margin. It’s clearly still very good!

cwick: But they suck!

ryan: You didn’t say “wow.”

grace: The exact reason this sport is the most popular in the world is summed up by how a team can still be very good even though they suck.


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CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2021, 4:26 p.m.): This chat has been updated to correct a misspelling of Marco Verratti’s last name.

Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

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